Retro Dee is a regular contributor to The Grooveyard’s website, writing about music, fashion and other trends of the 1950s. Check out her blog, Retro Dee’s Guide to the Best Era Ever here, and her column here every Wednesday.
The 1950’s were wonderful, but what did the people of that time eat? I’m not trying to make them sound like an ancient civilization here, but in reality the mid-20th Century was a LONG time ago and many things have changed in the American Diet.
Most of the fast food and easy-to-prepare ready products that we take for granted today did not exist in the 1950’s. There were actually no fast food places, and all things considered, that’s a good thing. The original McDonald’s was one of many burger places. There was NO Burger King, Carls Jr., Jack In The Box or Taco Bell. All that quickie, commercial junk food came later. You could also not just pick up the phone and order a pizza in the 50’s. Pizza places had not even begun to come into existence then, and if you wanted a pie, you’d have to go to an actual Italian restaurant to get one!
Most restaurants in the 50’s were simple, decent, family places where you would sit and enjoy wholesome comfort food in a homey setting. Then, of course were the diners and malt shops frequented by courting teens that we have come to love as a nostalgic picture of a great era gone by. Another iconic 50’s dine out option were Drive-Ins. I only recently realized that “Drive-In” didn’t always mean a movie was showing. There were many burger places called “drive-ins” where you would simply drive up to and they’d come out and serve you in your car! This is how A&W and McDonalds started. Some drive-in restaurants even had waitresses on roller skates. I wonder how they didn’t always drop the food like on the beginning theme of the first episodes of “Happy Days”.
It’s interesting to note that were not a lot of fine or “gourmet” restaurants to dine at back then. There were very, very few restaurants that had chefs who went to school to learn to cook a 5-course meal. Most just had basic cooks, making basic American fare, in a restaurant’s humble kitchen. Restaurants did not offer a lot of fancy themes or cultural food choices either. While “going out for Chinese food” was possible, it was not the popular norm.
In a typical house hold on a normal evening, the man would come home from work and the woman would have dinner (or “supper” as many folks call it) ready. The kids would probably be done with their homework (or outdoor activities in the summer) and ready to spend time with their parents and siblings. Women worked rather hard in the kitchen because of the lack of being able to cut corners with a microwave or other instant types of food preparation. But one thing that’s interesting about that era, is that food companies were becoming more and more aware of the women’s need to have dinner ready each and every night for her family. Thus, they began to invent ways to make meal preparation easier: companies such as Hormel began to market easy meals that were partly made in cans such as chili and Spam. Kraft had already invented their “Kraft Dinner” (aka Macaroni and Cheese) in 1937 to allow poor folks make a simple meal to feed their broods. Of course, the bright, unnatural neon-orange color didn’t come about until much later when companies began adding artificial dye to their products.
The idea of nutrition in the 50’s was different from what ours is today. For example, as you can see in the Food Chart pictured below, they had seven basic food groups, the seventh being butter. Yes, BUTTER was considered a food group in the 1940’s and 50’s. (Personally, I think it should be chocolate.) Baffling, though, since butter is technically not a food… and if you put it anywhere, it should be with the Dairy Group which they lovingly labeled as “Milk and Milk Products.” Because… Milk. ❤
And here’s the chart! It’s been on practically every 1950’s Lifestyles site on the internet, so you know for sure it was real. Issued by the US Government in 1943, this was actually what people lived by!
Also note they say to “eat some food” from each category every day, but they don’t give you the exact servings like on the later charts and the food pyramids of today. And then there’s my favorite part: “In addition to the basic 7, eat ANY other foods you want!” Well gee, that narrows it down… Plus they found it necessary to put oranges, grapefruits and tomatoes in their own special category, apart from “Potatoes, other vegetables and fruits.” Whatever, I’m not judging.
While food companies didn’t taint foods with artificial dyes and synthetic preservatives like they do today, folks believed that 3 large meals a day was the proper norm. (as opposed to smaller, more frequent meals) There was no diet or light anything. Not even diet sodas! Eating light was non-existent and women were not obsessed with being 20 pounds under her normal weight to attract a man. Men were fine with women needing to actually eat to live. Wow, what a concept, right? So if you ask me (and you probably aren’t, although, whose blog is this anyway?) there are both good and bad aspects to nutrition of the 1950’s. Good being that no one deliberately starved herself to fit into unrealistic parameters. Plus, as I’ve just said above, it was also beneficial that they didn’t have dyes and preservatives loaded into their food products. When you went to the market, there weren’t 1,000 kids’ cereals to choose from that turned the milk blue. Nor was there a vast, endless array of salty and greasy snacks to choose from. About the only snacks available in those days were natural potato chips and popcorn. That’s about it! And to top it off, good foods such as fresh vegetables were full of nutrients because the soil had not yet become depleted as it is today. You didn’t need to take daily vitamins in the 50’s, because you automatically got what you needed from food if you ate a balanced meal. Now. The “Bad” aspect to nutrition in those days is that they had virtually no idea how to keep grams of fat down to a healthy minimum or how to count calories. Ample amounts of sugar were just A-OK especially since it was now widely available after the war. Butter, gravy and salt were poured on unsparingly. Red meat was considered a healthy thing to consume 3-5 times a week! Frying foods (particularly at home) was a new and exciting concept. We now know better about many foods and their dangers, when before many people were clueless.
The 1950’s are famous for being when the “TV Dinner” was first invented. This was created by Swanson who would advertise the meals showing a housewife being able to offer a balanced dinner to her family in just 25 minutes. Since there were no microwaves, the first frozen meals were heated in a continental oven with foil covered over them. The tray had sections for the different types of foods, much like today. But unlike today, there were no “so-called” healthy frozen meals (which are still actually not that healthy because of the amount of preservatives injected into them and the lack of food quality.) Which brings us to the conclusion that overall, frozen meals are just gross in any era. Furthermore, it proves that sometimes in life you can’t cut corners and still get the desired results.
In closing, I’m guessing that going to the super market back in those days was was a simple trip with few, yet mostly wholesome, choices. Checkout probably took longer because there were no bar codes and they had to type each price into the cash register, but everything was inexpensive and plentiful. The days of stamps and rationing had ended, and the days of inflation had not yet begun. By and by the Fifties will always be noted as the era of the home-cooked meal and the family that enjoyed sharing it together.
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